Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Party is Over for Florida Panthers: Time to Focus on Old Friends the Devils

From George Richards' On Frozen Pond

At first glance, the Panthers are facing a well-known foe when the playoffs open up this week.

The New Jersey Devils were the last team to face the Panthers in the postseason with Martin Brodeur picking up four wins as the Devils swept Florida in the 2000 opening round. Florida center John Madden was part of that Devils team and admits he is still friends with a number of former teammates on that team. Scott Clemmensen played for New Jersey as recently as 2009.

Devils coach Pete DeBoer, well, we all know that story.

Aside from those connections, however, and the Panthers and Devils don't know much about each other. Both teams have two wins in the season series, one that ended way back on Feb. 11. When the Devils come south, it will be their first visit to Florida since December 13.

Florida plays host to the Devils in the opening game on Friday with Game 2 on Sunday. Florida visits New Jersey on April 17 and 19. Game 5, if necessary, will be in South Florida on April 21. All games will be televised locally on FS Florida.

“We’ve got a lot of homework to do over the next couple of days,'' coach Kevin Dineen said. “We’ll be very busy as a staff to give our players the right amount of information on New Jersey. I have tremendous amount of respect for that organization. Lou Lamoriello has a level of stability there and Pete’s done a wonderful job this year.

“They’ve got some really entertaining players, and I’m not blowing smoke. That’s a good team we’re going to play. So we’re going to need to be at the top of our game in the playoffs to have success in Round 1.”

Even though the Panthers are the third seed in the Eastern Conference, they are the definite underdog in the opening round. The Devils finished the regular season with a flourish, winning six straight with three of those wins coming against playoff-bound teams.

The Devils also earned eight more points (with 10 more wins) in the regular season than Florida did, finishing fourth in the Atlantic division behind the Rangers.

Florida, meanwhile, snapped a five-game winless streak by beating visiting Carolina 4-1 on Saturday night. That win brought the team its first division championship in franchise history and the third seed in the east.

Madden resumed his hockey career with the Panthers after signing as a free agent in January, making his season debut Jan. 6 against his former teammates in Newark. Madden, who scored his third goal of the season on Saturday, said the Devils are a different bunch than the one he left behind in 2009.

“I still know a lot of the guys and take vacation over the summer with some of them,'' Madden said. “It's business as usual. This is playoff hockey, but you look back to see how you played them, see how you match up. I'm sure they feel they match up with well against us. It's going to be a good series.''

The key to the Devils – as has been the case since the mid-90s – is Brodeur. The three-time Stanley Cup champion turns 40 next month and hasn't taken the Devils out of the second round since 2003. Brodeur is 1-2 against the Panthers this season, but his 37 wins against the Panthers are most by a single goalie all-time. In 2000, Brodeur gave up just six goals in the four-game sweep of the Panthers.

Clemmensen spent parts of five seasons backing up the future first-ballot Hall of Famer and filled in admirably when Brodeur was injured and missed most of the 2008-09 season. Clemmensen's success as a fill-in starter led to a three-year deal from the Panthers the following summer.

Clemmensen could be tabbed as Florida's starter at least for the time being. Clemmensen stopped 34 of 35 shots on Saturday and has given up just five goals in his past four starts. Clemmensen is also 4-0 against the Devils over the course of his career.

“I feel good about my game right now,'' Clemmensen said. “Whether I start [Game 1] or not, I'm going to be ready to play. It could be Game 2 or whatever. I'll be ready. I don't know who is going to start. You do the best you can and you want to play every game.

"I've had four starts in four weeks and I played the hand I was dealt. You make the most of it, put the decision in their hands.''

There is still plenty of support for Jose Theodore in the locker room, especially since a good number of players give Theodore credit for helping the Panthers get where they are today. “Clemmensen made a real statement with his game [Saturday], as well as in the last month,'' Dineen said.

Said Ed Jovanovski: “Theodore has played the majority of the games this season and has been our MVP. That's how I feel about it. We know we have two great goaltenders.''

--Not long after Dineen was hired by the Panthers as coach, DeBoer gave him a call not only to offer his congratulations but to talk about the position. DeBoer coached the Panthers for three seasons before being fired the day after Florida's win over Washington in the 2010-11 season finale.

DeBoer, who had a season left on his contract with the Panthers, was hired by the Devils in July.

No one could have guessed the two coaches would be facing each other in the opening round of the playoffs.

“We never know how those things play out,'' Dineen said. “It’s a tight circle, the hockey world. There’s always a level of respect. The coaching community is always tight. Pete has done a heck of job over there this year and he knows our players well, he’s got a little bit of an advantage on that front.”

--The Panthers will hold practices from Monday through Thursday at the Iceplex in Coral Springs. Practice, which is open to the public, is scheduled to begin at 10:30 each morning.

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